Confessions of a Weekend Nerd

Apollo. Fifty years.

We landed on the moon. I look back on it now and I am amazed. I understand some of what went into it, how challenging it was, the amazing level of commitment and dedication, and how unlikely it all might have been. As my sense of history developed, long after high school, I began to see all the incredible things people do, especially here, as sort of willed accidents. By that I mean, someone or a group of someones come up with an idea of something to do, a big something, and put it out there. Others sign on and they all move in that direction. The fact of the matter is, any of a thousand things can derail it and the idea never gets off the ground. So many things have to come together to clear the way, to maintain support, to collect the resources, that the notion that anything actually happens becomes a kind of miracle. Often, it is just timing. The idea gets all the funding and commitment and talent collected before any of the myriad roadblocks effectively arise.

The space program is one of those. When you look back at everything we could and intended that did not happen, it becomes obvious that it was an unlikely thing. By the end of the Sixties, and into the Seventies, large groups had begun challenging the whole project as a pointless, expensive, wasteful vanity project. There were more important things to do here on the ground, why are we spending so much on this when there are hungry people, when there are infrastructure projects going begging, when this or that or the other thing are so much more important. And it mounted and finally, like the nibbling of ducks, dragged the behemoth down and nearly stopped it. Nixon made his fateful choice for a shuttle rather a Mars mission and we seemed to “settle” for a considerably more modest off-world presence. Then, of course, all the funding arguments about the shuttle reduced its range and capacity and while still a remarkable instrument it was far less than the dreams of the Kennedy-era enthusiast wanted.

Life and politics happened and NASA trudged on to do still amazing things, but at a much-reduced level of imaginative possibility. A lot of Americans lost interest.

Now the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing is upon us and many people over a certain age are indulging in the “where were you when” nostalgia, and probably rewriting a lot of personal history. By the enthusiastic remembrances on exhibit, one has to wonder, if that many people had been that thrilled at the time, how did the space program ever lose ground?

My friend and colleague Allen Steele is the only person I know close to my age who was at that level of enthusiasm back then. I have no doubt he stayed home from school to watch the reports on television. He saw things I never at the time even knew happened, exciting things which, if you weren’t paying close attention, you missed. My parents were excited. Some of my classmates were thrilled but they didn’t watch.

Where was I when Neil Armstrong stepped out of a very flimsy can to walk on another world? Home, because it was one of the rare times my parents decided to keep me out of school.+ Dad made me watch.

Yes, I said “made.” Because, to be perfectly honest, the whole thing by then bored me out of my skull. Tell me about it after it happened, thank you.

I felt guilty about that later, until I heard about Robert A. Heinlein’s testimony before Congress in which he chastised them for doing such a pitiful P.R. job with the space program. He saw what had happened, they had turned it into one of those incredibly lifeless, innocuous educational films we paid no attention to in school. Bad animation, endless hours of a cartoon capsule and “live” audio of back-and-forths between Gemini and Mission Control, and the oh-so-serious commentary of people like Walter Cronkite and Jules Bergman, with the occasional guest commentator like Arthur C. Clarke.

The truth is, this was a difference between the “how do we do this” crowd and the “what are we gonna do when we get there” crowd. I suspect the latter outnumbered the former, and when the answer was “collect some rocks and take some pictures” it must have rippled like a soporific grade-school lecture through us. They might have done better had they done more of the “what are we going to do next” sort of thing that popped up far too seldom, although when it did was made to sound as exciting as someone describing how they would lay new carpet.

Even back then I knew people who believed it was all fake. Challenging them about it, I sensed that really they wanted it to be fake. They didn’t want it to be real, because then they would have to pay attention to it, if only to complain about it. And then there are others who don’t want great things done. Their opinion of human beings is low, that we are more scourge than anything, and great things only sustain a set of illusions we don’t deserve to have. This is nothing new. This is a modern version of an ongoing sense that all the great things have already been done, far in the past, and that the modern world (pick your period) is a shadow of former greatness or a corruption of what we might have been. An Eclessiastical View, if you will. Then someone comes along to propose a new great thing and the struggle begins between the will to do it and those who just can’t bring themselves to let it happen.

Hence my opinion that great things are willed accidents.

But they happen. Often enough to give the rest of us aspirations, a sense of potential.

Growing up, you learn—presumably—that your desires and aspirations rise or fall on what has gone before. Why was I bored by the space program? Because it wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I wanted to be on the moon already, with the space stations already built and the mission to Mars already underway or done, and the whole space-centered future I’d been reading about since I was old enough to choose my own books in place. I was impatient. This stuff, because I was not an engineering nerd, didn’t affect me. I was the kid who was more interested in how the new cars looked rather than how they ran. I was a weekend space nerd.

But this was true about most things in my life and I have to wonder how many others were the same. I was always more interested in the next thing than in the thing in front of me. I was in a hurry to get on down the road, because—

Well, the future for me was always better than the present.

Now a curious phenomena has overtaken me and possibly thousands if not millions of others. The next thing is actually in the past. The next thing we should have done in the wake of Apollo and didn’t is now the future I was more interested in then and has now picked up where it should have left off in 1974. So Apollo has been resurrected in my imagination as a seriously amazing cool thing.

So I’ve seen the movies, have been reading the new books, and kind of glorying in this great thing that happened when I was a kid. Belatedly, I’m a fan. And NASA is building a new rocket, on par with the old Saturn V, and we have plans to return to the moon (which makes sense only in terms of rebuilding the network and infrastructure to do and maybe as a way of rallying the national imagination, but we really should be going to Mars), and suddenly we have a kind of post-Columbian* enthusiasm for doing the thing we walked away from in the Seventies. I’m studying the period now with the adult interest that might have made a difference back then and caused me to pay attention despite the mind-numbingly boring coverage.

Because if asked, back then, I would never have said it was not a desirable thing to do. I would have been thrilled that we had done it. And the suggestions at the time that maybe we shouldn’t struck me as absurd. Come the weekend, I was there. I just didn’t want to pay attention to the doing. Which is a mistake. Willed accidents do happen, in spite of the kind of ambivalence to which I refer, but that ambivalence can rob them of their full potential and sometimes derail them completely.

Doing it now seems to be acquiring a new kind of enthusiasm. But it would never happen if it had not already been done.

For the record, then, I want that future. Always did. I want us in space. I want bases on the moon, colonies on Mars, ships going hither and yon, and a striving toward the outer edge. For many reasons I want that, but first and foremost I want it because that’s where my imagination finds replenishment. Because I see that as the cool thing to do. And the doing will make us better.

Happy anniversary, Apollo. Ad astra.

 

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*In the sense that it was fully half a century to a century after Columbus made his first voyage before nations really got behind the whole effort to cross the Atlantic and establish colonies.  There does seem to be a timelag connected to these sorts of enterprises. Mind you, I make no comment here on the desirability of what happened in the wake of Columbus, but the exploratory impulse on its own is, in my opinion, an essential and basically good part of human society and character.

+ Since posting this, I have been reminded that the landing was at around 10:00 PM ET, so I would not have been kept out of school to watch. It may have been the splashdown for which I was kept home. This just goes to show how disconnected I was at the time and the way in which memory plays tricks on us.

True Belief

For several years, we have seen shots across the bow from advocates of either pure capitalism or some form of socialism, and except for a few instances of informed theoretical discussions based on a thoroughly de-romanticized view of history, we are treated to schoolyard fights between factions that never seem to care for reasoned discourse, only for planting flags and claiming loyalty.

This is not religion, but for so many people it gets taken as such, and the results are rarely edifying. What is amusing (in a tortured way) is the assumption by such advocates that any move toward the reviled system will somehow strip us of our intellect and render us stupid, incapable of managing things to our benefit. That, for example, “socialism never works” must be based on the same assumptions made during the Cold War that communism somehow turned its followers into mindless robots. Of course, the inference here is that Capitalism does not.

“Look at Venezuela!”

As if that is the only indictment necessary to discredit what is essentially an economic theory that in no way demands to be taken as an all-or-nothing proposition.  Look at Norway. Or Sweden. Or any of the other modern states that have taken socialism and applied it as needed to alter a social contract between the state and its citizens to the benefit of both.

Venezuela is suffering the consequences of decades of corruption and elite pillage, which can happen in any system. The reason we here are not facing a similar meltdown is more a tribute to the sheer size of our economy and the fact that we have adapted certain mechanisms which, depending on the decade, have been decried as “socialist.” But in fact, we are experiencing pillage and have been since we shifted Right in the 1980s. Systematic, legal, well-sold pillage. Every time a tax cut goes to the benefit of the upper 10%, it has to be paid for, either by a commensurate decrease in services we all use, or by borrowing against future securities the cost of which comes out of everyone’s pocket. In time, the effects should be obvious, and they are, but we are still so big and in many parts so comfortable, that we can’t seem to muster sufficient, useful outrage to do anything about.

Right now, because so many of us think the alternative is Socialism, which has been made to appear the end of any kind of civilization we consider good.

This is religion. “You can’t credit Them with a just argument because they are the forces of evil!” Why? “Because they are not like us!”

To which, the question must be asked, “And what are we?”

But to my original point: the assumption seems to be that A System is pernicious, that it has a mind of its own, and once engaged it has certain inevitable consequences that our only defense is to reject it. Utterly.

If true of Socialism, why isn’t it true of Capitalism?

It’s an absurd argument not because it’s so wrong but because it’s so ignorant. I mean “ignorant” in the precise meaning of the word, which is not, in spite of a century of misuse, “stupid.” Ignorance is a condition of lack of knowledge, information. Being ignorant is a curable condition, entirely addressable by becoming informed.

But I do not believe on the level of individual citizens the debate has much of anything to do with the efficacy of systems. In order for that to be the case, a fairly solid grasp of those system would be required, and economics is not amenable to casual understanding, not at this level. Instead, it is entirely personal. it is born out an apprehension of threat and a promise of salvation. Examples are given to bolster shallow arguments, but examples with considerable apparent weight, which would require equal study to see as anything but mythic constructs arrayed in battle for the soul of civilization.

In short, religion.

Now, I use the term Religion in the sense of a system.  (Again, systems.) Religion, questions of deities aside, are systems of organization designed to bring people together in an aesthetic cohesion around a statement of rightness. Rituals, arcane texts, sophisticated propaganda feed into a broad community-based set of practices that identify people to each other as sharing beliefs and preferences in behavior. Once you extend past the village level, it becomes a System. People can sign on to participation by agreeing to acknowledge the forms and refrain from questioning the underlying premises. This has benefits to the group primarily, but for the individual as well.

What it does not require to operate is broad understanding of the components, justifications, or origins. It is designed to operate without that. A hierarchy is in charge of the “mysteries” and the actual decisions on how to apply it all, but the populace in general need understand little.

Economic systems are similar.

And the results are very much the same—average people, admittedly or not, treat the system as if it were some kind of natural phenomena, correct and good. Who in their right mind would question it?

The chief beneficiaries of such a system prefer people feel that way.

The question, though, is why such persistent dedication when there is no justification for it? I refer now to people who benefit little from maintaining a system that they understand poorly at best. Not that they couldn’t understand it, but seem unwilling to even crack a book to check whether the barbed euphemisms handed to them by politicians and pundits hold any value.

According to Edward O. Wilson, in his recent book, Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies, it’s tribal:

For most of history, organized religions have claimed sovereignty over the meaning of human existence. For their founders and leaders the enigma has been relatively easy to solve. The gods put us on Earth, then they told us how to behave. Why should people around the world continue to believe one fantasy over another out of the more than four thousand that exist on Earth? The answer is tribalism…Each of the organized or otherwise public religions as well as scores of religion-like ideologies defines a tribe, a tightly knit group of people joined by a particular story….The members of the tribe are inspired by the special status the story gives them.

A telling phrase in that is “religion-like ideologies.” This would include all nationalistic creeds as well as less politically determined programs that serve to tell us who we should be in order to find conformable situations within a group. Economic systems, for instance, which is relatively new on the scene. Marx arguably set the terms of this new ideological initiation by making everyone aware that such systems not only serve to enable trade along rational lines and distribute goods and services in more or less efficient ways, but come to define us in terms of class and status and, eventually, popular philosophical disposition.

Whether or not a given system “works” better than others has become less important currently than our allegiance to it, which serves to separate us into easily-identifiable subgroups. The battle is not now over what might work “better” but over identity. We here saw this as a flaw in the soviet system, because so much of it failed to work to the benefit of the people, but recognizing the apparent blindness in others has not allowed us to see it in ourselves.

Because it aligns with another oft-unacknowledged blindness, which is the need to feel superior. Or, at least, not feel inferior.

We could certainly adapt aspects of Socialism to our system and make it work for us. We already have. It was called the New Deal. It worked well enough and the only reason to tear it down was that it threatened someone’s sense of importance and security of power. So we already have evidence that it will not eat us alive like some cancer and there is evidence available from all around the world. What we see when we look at it is a mixed bag, ranging from very workable to a shambles. But usually the broken examples are broken from a multiplicity of problems not necessarily inherent in Socialism. Any such system can be made to work badly.

But then we have to ask what we mean by that. Work badly for whom? It can be argued that certain groups in such systems may benefit tremendously by the apparent failures to work as advertised. It’s interesting that we assume a system fails when it injures the general population. The application of it certainly fails a large demographic, but I think it is an error to see this as a failure. Someone got just exactly what they wanted and for them it was a raging success. It’s more interesting when we fail to recognize the same kind of “success” going on here.

Every time the argument is made that communism “never” works, it is fair to ask where and when communism has ever been honestly applied. If the state in question ends up with an autocratic governing body or even a dictator, then it is equally fair to say that is not communism. So the “failure” of communism, in my opinion, has yet to be demonstrated because I have yet to see a single example of it at the state level that was little more than a set of promises to allow a new king to take the throne. That’s not communism.

But I’m not here to argue in favor of it. I’m more interested in urging people to stop giving blind allegiance to what amounts to a set of recommendations that require tweaking as circumstance dictates. Adapting an economic system whole (which is another assumption that requires examination, that any country could just adapt a system wholesale and wake up tomorrow with it in place) is not likely to work any better than denying the possible benefits of mixing and matching multiple systems. It depends on what you think you want done.

What we do have, because we operate tribally, is a set of prejudices that predetermine not what system would be best for people, but what kind of people would best suit a system. We aren’t, apparently, interested in economic justice or community care or rational monetary policies—we’re interested in sorting people into groups and shutting out those we feel do not conform to what we believe. Too many people don’t want to hear arguments about universal health because some of them think there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to have it. Same thing with fair housing practices, education, and even universal franchise. Finding the best system which is the most inclusive may be what we claim to want but in practice a lot of people want the opposite.

Since it’s illegal these days to discriminate on traditional bases, we use financial status to do so. Changes in that system which might lead to closer equity and broader civil rights threaten the status of enough of us to trigger irrational arguments over things poorly understood.  For the time being, a large segment seems quite content to see the upper 1% get more of the pie as long as it keeps the supposedly less deserving from getting anything at all.

For what it’s worth, in my opinion those folks are going to lose in the long run. But until they do, this is going to be frustrating, bitter fight, one made harder by tribal pride and a kind of sacred ignorance.

 

The Absurdity of Unexamined Positions

Recently I had an exchange with someone over climate change. It was short and frustrating. The basis of the exchange was a report—recycled from 2007 and given a new lease on life because of the recent book and film—on Al Gore’s presumably exorbitant energy use in his home.  Depending on which non-news site you chose, he either uses 34 times more than the average American or 21 times.   The intent of the articles was to show Mr. Gore as a hypocrite, someone preaching the sermon but then balking at the walk.

It’s true, he lives large.  He has a ten thousand square foot home, which is more than five times the size of the average American home, and that doesn’t include the grounds.  But there was also no mention made of the carbon offsets he buys or the investments he makes in green energy or the money he spent upgrading a century old house to more modern energy efficiencies or the way he has specified the source of much of his energy so that a lot if not most comes from alternate sources.  This was a standard-issue bit of simple-minded criticism that says if you do not live in a hovel when preaching about certain things, you’re automatically a hypocrite.  It is not, I should point, about forcing Al Gore to reduce his lifestyle but to force him to shut up.  None of these people would care if he moved into a double-wide with solar panels and a hydrogen cell to live off the grid.  Their purpose is to get him to stop talking.

As I said, the exchange was short. This was with a climate change denier fully invested in the belief that it is all a hoax.  I was reminded of the mindset of occultists and alchemists, who at their base believed fervently that answers were unobtainable, that if you thought you had found the truth you were automatically wrong.  No, few if any ever stated it so baldly, but it’s obvious from the way they would avoid genuine experiment, deny all arguments that might contradict received wisdom, and generally evaded any conclusion that suggested they were in pursuit of the unattainable.  Science had to rid itself of this obdurate self-imposed blindness before it could flourish and it seems clear that we are burdened with some variation of it still.

But I wondered, just what drives this kind of selective self-censorship?

Well, obviously a lack of understanding.  The science is complex and people often have difficulty grasping causal concepts that seem to contradict personal experience. When your city is frozen in the grip of a record-breaking snow storm it’s difficult to reconcile the assertion that global temperatures are rising.  Difficult but not impossible, especially if the following summer comes with record-breaking heat, for perhaps the fourth or fifth consecutive year.  (Climate has changed in St. Louis.  When I was a kid, three feet of snow in December was not unusual, snow that lasted through February sometimes. Now?  People are stunned when we have a foot that lasts a week, if that. Summers are hotter. Certain insect patterns have shifted. Things have changed and when I look for explanations the only model that conforms to experience is global climate change.)  Lack of understanding can be corrected, though.  People can learn.  They may not want to but they can.

Sometimes, though, they go down a cul-d-sac and get stuck in a plausible dead-end. Staying there, though, depends on things having little to do with evidence or logic.

Consider: the rejection of climate change makes no sense. Addressing the problem of where we get our energy is a technical issue, a matter of engineering. There are several reasons, perfectly sound ones, to change the way we do this.  Pollution is the simplest one.  What kind of a world do you want to live in?  One with soot, particulates,  toxicity? The expense of defending against such things is high, depending where you live. Environmental degradation is another. Tearing up mountains to extract coal, leaving ugly holes, spilling the effluent into waterways, drilling—and fracking is worse.  Look at satellite images of fracking-intense areas and the clouds of waste gas.  And of course earthquakes where few if any had occurred before.  And the damage to water tables.

Jobs is the cry.  Displacing workers.  Well, building a whole new industry would seem to be a jobs-positive thing. The technology and industries to not only build solar and wind would expand the jobs market, but also the construction of the networks, distribution, and upgrading and maintaining the grid (which needs it anyway, regardless of the energy source), all these things mean jobs.

The expense!  The expense we currently shoulder in artificially maintaining obsolete systems should by now be common knowledge.  The expense on taxpayers subsidizing industries that are collapsing not to mention the downstream expense of cleaning up after the pollution.  The expense of people made sick.  The asthma rates in coal country are rising.  We pay an exorbitant amount to maintain the illusion that coal and oil are the only means to accomplish what we want to.

Someone like Al Gore comes along and starts pointing this out.  You might quibble with some of his details, but in essence he has a sound argument.  Instead of attacking the argument—which might lead to some edifying consequence, like all of us learning something useful—his character is attacked.  This is not an uncommon tactic.  Some people seem to feel a person has to be virtually a saint in order to hold and disseminate an opinion.  But if what he says is supported by the science, what difference does it make how he lives?  What is it about his lifestyle that invalidates the message?

He’s asking other people to change but, presumably, he won’t.

What exactly is he asking most people to change?  If tomorrow your electricity came from wind turbines instead of a coal-fired plant, what has changed for you?  Electricity is electricity. The costs? Costs aren’t rising anyway?  Your taxes aren’t going to subsidize the industry?  Or is this more akin to the fear of “death panels” presumably inevitable with universal health care?  We go along with this and next year someone from the government will take away your car or truck? Transportation is already changing, it will continue to do so, and in ten years you may find you don’t even want your car, but that’s beside the point.  Such a fear is a boogeyman used to keep us from addressing the problem.  My question stands: what exactly is he asking you to change?

The question of costs is not irrelevant, but as I say, they’re going up anyway.  Maybe in the long run there might be some relief if part of the cost is not in cleaning up so much detritus.  But that requires long term thinking outside your immediate sphere.  You have to consider the community, the country, the planet.  Most people find that difficult, if not to achieve then to sustain.

Lifestyle.  Your lifestyle will change.

That is almost unanswerable because it’s so nebulous.  As I suggest above, change is coming anyway, but probably not what you expect.  On the simple question of how you get your energy, what changes?  Still, not an irrelevant point.

There will, perhaps, be less available energy. To do what?  We’ve been undergoing a small (perhaps not so small) revolution in energy efficiency for lo these last few decades.  Our houses are full of devices that operate on far less electricity than their ancestors required.  That’s not likely to stop.  But we can look at Europe to see the numbers and discover that the very thing which will provide jobs will also suffice to power your lifestyle.

But I suspect the thing feared in terms of change has nothing to do with actual resource. What will change is some aspect of identity.

From what to what?

Basically, the changes in policy required to address climate change would be a net positive whether the science is flawed or not.  Breathing cleaner air, securing the potability of our water, lightening our touch on the ecologies are all desirable and come with economic benefits regardless.  If it turned out by some odd oversight that we got the climate change model wrong, so what?  We would have built a new energy grid based on cleaner models and generally improved the well-being of the commonwealth.  If we aren’t wrong about climate change, we can add saving the world for humanity as a bonus.

But like someone who doesn’t want to give up steak for dinner, we treat climate change like vegetarianism.  It doesn’t matter that the science may be correct about the health benefits, we still want our meat.  It’s a question of identity.

We burn oil and coal!  It’s American!  All this wind and solar is somehow…somehow…feeble.

Perhaps the deniers can’t imagine building with such tools.  Perhaps they can’t accept joining in a global cooperative effort not being invented or run by America.

Whatever the reason, short-term vested interests love you.  Because they are able to count on you as foot soldiers in the fight to forestall the imposition of regulations on them.  They do not want to be told what they can or cannot do and this is just another species of limitation on their personal vision of Who Counts.

But that’s understandable.  That’s greed and avarice.  What’s the denier’s excuse?  Being somehow joined with the mighty by association with the self-styled giants of industry?

I accept the science involved.  A cold snap here and there isn’t enough to convince me all the rest is a phantom.  But it doesn’t matter.  Accepting the need to change the way we use this planet means so many other things, including eventually taking the power to dictate from people who have no business having it in the first place.  Climate Change Denial costs so much more and fails to address everything else that goes to the need to change.

When Reagan ripped the solar panels off the White House in a fit of thoughtless national pomposity, he empowered a mindset that we’re still having to put up with.  A mindset that won’t debate, won’t consider, won’t yield, and won’t change. not because the thing it rails against is wrong but because it cannot stand not being right.

Light

Just musing on the amazing quality of light.  I’ve been reading several science books lately, one in particular (The Invention of Science by David Wootton) that goes into considerable depth about actual Seeing as essential to the transformation of culture from a pre-scientific to scientific basis. But all of them deal with light as a founding subject for the apprehension of the world. Einstein won his Nobel because of the work he did on photons, Newton began with a study of optics, and quantum mechanics wouldn’t be giving both the joys and headaches of our present understanding of nature if not for the whole revelation about quanta and photons and wave functions…

It is essential to everything we are, whether we can see it or not.  As Carl Sagan said, we are made of star stuff and you  cannot think of stars separate from the light.

So a couple of images for you, showing the marvelous manifestations of light.

Caught out the window of the car on our way back from Pittsburgh.

And…

 

Stepping out of my car in an underground garage, early morning, where an opportune window let this beauty in.

Have a good week.

We Prospered: Leonard Nimoy, 1931 to 2015

He was, ultimately, the heart and soul of the whole thing.  The core and moral conscience of the congeries that was Star Trek.  Mr. Spock was what the entire thing was about.  That’s why they could never leave him alone, set him aside, get beyond him. Even when he wasn’t on screen and really could be nowhere near the given story, there was something of him.  They kept trying to duplicate him—Data, Seven-of-Nine, Dax, others—but the best they could do was borrow from the character.

I Am Not Spock came out in 1975.  It was an attempt to explain the differences between the character and the actor portraying him.  It engendered another memoir later entitled I Am Spock which addressed some of the misconceptions created by the first.  The point, really, was that the character Spock was a creation of many, but the fact is that character would not exist without the one ingredient more important than the rest—Leonard Nimoy.

Spock IDIC

I was 12 when Star Trek appeared on the air.  It is very difficult now to convey to people who have subsequently only seen the show in syndication what it meant to someone like me.  I was a proto-SF geek.  I loved the stuff, read what I could, but not in any rigorous way, and my material was opportunistic at best.  I was pretty much alone in my fascination.  My parents worried over my “obsessions” with it and doubtless expected the worst.  I really had no one with whom to share it.  I got teased at school about it, no one else read it, even my comics of choice ran counter to the main.  All there was on television were movie re-runs and sophomoric kids’ shows.  Yes, I watched Lost In Space, but probably like so many others I did so out of desperation, because there wasn’t anything else on!  Oh, we had The Twilight Zone and then The Outer Limits, but, in spite of the excellence of individual episodes, they just weren’t quite sufficient.  Too much of it was set in the mundane world, the world you could step out your front door and see for yourself.  Rarely did it Go Boldly Where No One Had Gone Before in the way that Star Trek did.

Presentation can be everything.  It had little to do with the internal logic of the show or the plots or the science, even.  It had to do with the serious treatment given to the idea of it.  The adult treatment.  Attitude.  Star Trek possessed and exuded attitude consistent with the wishes of the people who watched it and became devoted to it.  We rarely saw “The Federation” it was just a label for something which that attitude convinced us was real, for the duration of the show.  The expanding hegemony of human colonies, the expanse of alien cultures—the rather threadbare appearance of some of the artifacts of these things on their own would have been insufficient to carry the conviction that these things were really there.  It was the approach, the aesthetic tone, the underlying investment of the actors in what they were portraying that did that.  No, it didn’t hurt that they boasted some of the best special effects on television at that time, but even those couldn’t have done what the life-force of the people making it managed.

And Spock was the one consistent on-going absolutely essential aspect that weekly brought the reality of all that unseen background to the fore and made it real.  There’s a reason Leonard Nimoy started getting more fan mail than Shatner.  Spock was the one element that carried the fictional truth of everything Star Trek was trying to do.

And Spock would have been nothing without the talent, the humanity, the skill, the insight, and the sympathy Leonard Nimoy brought to the character.  It was, in the end, and more by accident than design, a perfect bit of casting and an excellent deployment of the possibilities of the symbol Spock came to represent.

Of all the characters from the original series, Spock has reappeared more than any other.  There’s a good reason for that.

Spock was the character that got to represent the ideals being touted by the show.  Spock was finally able to be the moral center of the entire thing simply by being simultaneously on the outside—he was not human—and deeply in the middle of it all—science officer, Starfleet officer, with his own often troublesome human aspect.  But before all that, he was alien and he was treated respectfully and given the opportunity to be Other and show that this was something vital to our own humanity.

Take one thing, the IDIC.  Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.  It came up only a couple of times in the series, yet what a concept.  Spock embodied the implications even in his trademark comment “Fascinating.”  He was almost always at first fascinated.  He wanted before anything else to understand. He never reacted out of blind terror.  Sometimes he was on the other side of everyone else in defense of something no one seemed interested in understanding, only killing.

I’m going on about Spock because I know him.  I didn’t know Mr. Nimoy, despite how much he gave of himself.  I knew his work, which was always exemplary, and I can assume certain things about him by his continued affiliation with a character which, had he no sympathy for, would have left him behind to be portrayed by others long since.  Instead, he kept reprising the role, and it was remarkably consistent.  Spock was, throughout, a positive conscience.

On the side of science.  I can think of no other character who so thoroughly exemplified rational morality.  Spock had no gods, only ideals.  He lived by no commandments, only morality.  His ongoing championing of logic as the highest goal is telling.  Logic was the common agon between Spock and McCoy, and sometimes between Spock and Kirk.  I suspect most people made the same mistake, that logic needs must be shorn of emotion.  Logic, however, is about “sound reasoning and the rules which govern it.” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)  This is one reason it is so tied to mathematics.  But consider the character and then consider the philosophy.  Spock is the one who seeks to understand first.  Logic dictates this.  Emotion is reactive and can muddy the ability to reason.  Logic does not preclude emotion—obviously, since Spock has deep and committed friendships—it only sets it aside for reason to have a chance at comprehension before action.  How often did Spock’s insistence on understanding prove essential to solving some problem in the show?

I suspect Leonard Nimoy himself would have been the first to argue that Spock’s devotion to logic was simply a very human ideal in the struggle to understand.

Leonard Nimoy informed the last 4 decades of the 20th Century through a science fictional representation that transcended the form.  It is, I believe, a testament to his talent and intellect that the character grew, became a centerpiece for identifying the aesthetic aspects of what SF means for the culture, and by so doing became a signal element of the culture of the 21st Century.

Others can talk about his career.  He worked consistently and brought the same credibility to many other roles.  (I always found it interesting that one his next roles after Star Trek was on Mission: Impossible, taking the place of Martin Landau as the IM team’s master of disguise.  As if to suggest that no one would pin him down into a single thing.)  I watched him in many different shows, tv movies, and have caught up on some of his work prior to Star Trek (he did a Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode in which he played opposite William Shatner) and in my opinion he was a fine actor.  He seems to have chosen his parts carefully, especially after he gained success and the control over his own career that came with it.  But, as I say, others can talk about that.  For me, it is Spock.

I feel a light has gone out of the world.  Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but…still, some people bring something into the world while they’re here that has the power to change us and make us better.  Leonard Nimoy had an opportunity to do that and he did not squander it.  He made a difference.  We have prospered by his gifts.

I will miss him.

 

Obsession Point

I have a friend who likes to engage me on our points of departure.  He’s a self-admitted conservative, I am not.  He’s a sincere Christian, I’m an atheist.  Looking around at the current culture, you would think that should make any conversation we might have problematic at best, impossible at worst.

Yet we carry on the occasional hour, two-hour, sometimes three hour conversation and never once descend into anger or dismissive rhetoric.  And yes, we talk about religion regularly.  We talk about politics.  We talk about meaningful living.  It’s the kind of exchange of ideas from different perspectives that seems both rare and uniquely pleasurable.  Would that we taught kids growing up how to appreciate this kind of conversation as, at the very least, an æsthetic pleasure.

Consequently, when he questions me on priorities, I tend to listen.

A couple weeks ago, after the monthly jam session (he runs a church basement coffeehouse to which I’ve been going and participating for more than a few years now) we hung around and started talking about current subjects.  My opening statement concerned the new movie Noah and the absurd fact that the studio has decided to put a disclaimer on it to appease religious reactionaries who are bothered by “historical inaccuracies.”  I expected a laugh over the ridiculousness of this—these are not people who have much patience for that kind of shallow literalism—but instead what followed was a discussion of my obsessive attention to people like Ken Ham and the anti-evolution crowd and biblical literalists in general.

“Why do you pay any attention to them?”

Well, I replied, somewhat glibly, stupidity is fascinating.

Patiently, though, my friend worked at that.  Really?  Aren’t there better things to focus your attention on than the obdurate intractability of intellectual ostriches?  Don’t you have, like, books to write?

At the end of the conversation (which is not to say that it’s over) I had to concede that I spent far too much time and mental energy worrying over the misreadings, misinterpretations, manglings, and malignancies of what is a minority example of entrenched ignorance.  Like watching a neighbor gradually destroy his property (and being unable to do much about it), or watching a slow-motion train wreck, or even repeatedly viewing and complaining about a very expensive yet utterly brainless film, it is both attractive and repellant to observe this particular bit of cultural shadow-play.

The answer to the question has occupied me now since.  Why do I give them so much of myself?

The glib answer is that they draw attention to themselves in such a way as to seem important and relevant.  Paying attention to them feels, on a shallow level, like being engaged.  Noticing them, knowing what they’ve been saying and seeing what they’re doing, seems like being a responsible agent in my own culture.  Every time they manage to censor discussions in schools about evolution or try to force prayer into the classroom or some other culture-war battleground is pushed into the news, being aware of it just seems the thing to do.

A somewhat less glib answer is that the very real political power such groups seem to enjoy worries me.  I don’t want to live in a country designed by biblical literalists.  And determining how they’re wrong and why is basic to any kind of pushback.

And of course, since this conversation took place, we have the incident of the FOX television affiliate in Oklahoma blocking fifteen seconds of the new Cosmos program, the 15 seconds dealing with evolution, and my blood boils.  I react.  I become insensed.   And I immediately go to write a new blog post about how stupid this is and how malevolent this kind of nonsense is and how—

Which is, actually, a waste of my time.  Really, there are better-qualified people doing exactly that.  You can find links to some of them on the sidebar over to the right.  You want to read a better-informed and more current tirade against this kind of thing, go to Freethought Pharyngula—P. Z. Myer is an evolutionary biologist and apparently has more time, energy, and inclination than I do to keep abreast of all this nonsense—or check the science blogs to which I maintain links.

I don’t have to do this.

And yet…and yet…I keep doing it.  Even here,  in addressing a different kind of question, I’m thrashing about and striking back.  Willful ignorance, asserted as if it is a positive attribute, with an insistence that it is Right and Truth and we should all bow to its inevitable godlines MAKES—ME—CRAZY.

Why?

Because, at base, I loathe my own ignorance.  I loathe that part of me that desperately wants to be right, whether I am or not.  Because I am aware of my ignorance and strive to correct it and because I see that as an important fight it disturbs me—more, it frightens me—when others not only don’t see the worth in that fight but are dedicated to preventing the triumph of knowledge.

So, I suppose the simple answer to my friend’s question is—fear.  Those people scare me.  They are the ideological descendents of Inquisitors, witchfinders, book-burners, imperialists of dogma, stone-throwers, and censors.  Because I read Lest Darkness Fall and Fahrenheit 451 and my imagination is such that I can see what a victory for them would mean for people like me.

And because I honestly lack any kind of faith in those who are my intellectual and cultural kindred that we will win this fight.

But that still doesn’t fully address the challenge he laid at me feet.  Why do I  pay so much attention to all this when I could better serve my own purpose and the purpose of the civilization I support in so many other ways?

Because, when combined with all of the above, this has become a rut.  It is easy.  And it feeds my sense of relevance.  But really it’s a paltry diet.  There are richer meals to be had, that would be more beneficial, to me and to others.  So it is an itch which has become easy and habitual for me to scratch.  And in certain company, it’s a sign that I am part of a certain group of like-minded.

It’s a poor excuse.  I could be doing better things with my time and frankly getting more out of my intellectual life.  Because at the end of the day, I’m not going to change their minds, and those who nod along with me when I dive into one of my tirades don’t need me to tell them about this.

I think it is worth paying attention to when tax money goes to something like Ken Ham’s Creation Museum.  That’s an abuse of public trust and a violation of the law, frankly, and should be made public and stopped.

But I don’t need to go on about Ken Ham’s idiocy.

The spot that itches has grown raw and inflamed from repeated scratching and no salve is in sight.  I need to leave it alone.  I have a book on mathematics to hand, another about the history of science fiction, and still another about World War I.  Yes, I have a couple of books dealing with the assault of reason, which is not only from a religious reactionary quarter—reason is under assault from many quarters—but I’m a fiction writer.  My job is to tell stories about the world and because I write science fiction I can do a little prognosticating.  I have to stop pissing away time on pointless subjects.

Besides, I really do think they’ll fade.  When I sit myself down and really examine it, the world view we define as that of Reason will maintain and eventually the nattering naysayers will diminish.  It’s just difficult to see that day to day and believe it when there are people worrying over the “historical” inaccuracies in a Hollywood film about a mythical event.

So I wish to thank my friend for opening a door and pointing out that I’ve been perhaps wandering the wrong hallway for a time.

This is why we must cultivate relationships with people we disagree with.

It Hurts

By now, I’m sure, many people know about the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.  Bill Nye, he of the bow tie, the science guy, stepped up to the podium to have it out, toe-to-toe, with Ken Ham, erstwhile champion of creationism, founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky which has been the subject of continual mirthful derision by anyone with even a scintilla of understanding about science.  They were to debate evolution versus creationism, which in my mind is like debating the similarities between Einstein and Sasquatch.  Other than the assertion by certain folks that they are somehow (a) equivalent and (b)…well, really, there is no “b” in this formulation.

Apparently even a poll conducted on Christian Today shows that Bill Nye pretty much mopped the floor with Ken Ham, who answered not one single question put to him by Nye in any useful way. Only 9% of respondents apparently saw Ham as the winner.  Of course that won’t be the end of it.  After the debate, a number of self-styled Christians presented questions for Nye which they, presumably, thought would stump him.  Buzzfeed posted several.  Go take a look, then come on back.  (You can also see the entire debate there.)

What’s that phrase? “The stupid…it hurts.”

Was that unkind?  Sorry.  (Not really.)   But while any single one of these can be dismissed as, oh, lack of attention, missed something in biology class (or astronomy), didn’t see that special on NOVA, collectively this amounts to willful ignorance at best.

“If humans came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”  Seriously?  Do you really not know how dumb that is?  You came from your parents—we all did—so why are there still parents?  Sorry, that was flip, but it does, actually, point up the problem, albeit in a rather crude and simplistic way.

And noetics?  That isn’t part of any segment of this debate, so…?

There was a time I would get mightily energized by this kind of thing.  I admit I had a deep-seated interest in being on the “right” side of this debate.  I still do, but it hardly gets me out the door anymore because I realized somewhere along the way that what we’ve been witnessing in the efforts of people like Ken Ham, as strenuous and perhaps sincere as they are, is the death spasm of a world view that doesn’t work.  It never did, but there was a time that understanding that didn’t make much difference, except to a few intellectual outliers here and there.  The fever pitch of condemnation coming from them is the sound of panic as the world prepares to leave them behind.

No, I’m not talking about the death of religion.  I do not believe that is possible.  I’m only talking about a very public formulation of a view of religion that has as its primary purpose nothing more than the regimentation of the faithful and the casting out of the new.  I’m talking about a narrative that seeks to impose and deny.  Impose its substance and form and deny any countervailing view.  I’m talking, really, about style.

Style is about identity.  When we talk about it that way, as style, it seems insignificant in the larger scheme of things.  Fashion.  And much of it is ephemeral.  But shift it to something else, as in artistic expression, and it takes on a bit more meaning.  The style of a writer is that writer’s voice, personality—identity.  There is something so deeply personal about style in this sense and we all recognize it.  We instantly recognize a musician with whom we are familiar by the style of playing.  Unknown canvases by painters declare identity in the manner of brushstroke or photographs betray their creators by the particular angle, frame, contrast.  Style at this level is inextricably linked to identity and when that style is declared no longer valid, a kind of death attends.

Because this is æsthetics, something utterly vital and intrinsic to our sense of self, yet so rarely discussed when any list of what makes us human gets trotted out for debate.  How we see the world and how we react to what we see, this is æsthetics in action and it defines us.  It defines us culturally, historically, and individually.  You can see it in that list of questions, in many ways so pathetic, when the question is framed in terms of awe and wonder.  A sunset, the amazingness of the world—even that fey reference to noetics—these are questions of reaction and interpretation to sensory experience, filtered through a value system that provides us with a quality of self grounded in our relation to the matrix of reality through which we move:  æsthetics.

Ken Ham’s museum displays exhibits showing humans coexisting with dinosaurs.  At some level, this is a world he wishes to have as real.  What kid doesn’t love dinosaurs at some point?  It’s inexplicable.  I’m continually amazed at what seems to be a persistent fascination across generations.  Part of us really wants there to be dinosaurs.  Not only that, but dinosaurs in our midst, at least at some point.

Dinosaurs aren’t in the Bible.  In fact, I know of no holy book in any culture that mentions them unless you want to see dragons as some neolithic abstraction of dinosaurs.   (They’re not, they emerge out of very different pools of myth, namely serpents, the Worm, but after the discovery and ultimate understanding of fossil dinosaurs dragons became more and more visually conforming to them.)  Yet even the most ardent of creationists are fascinated.  There is no mention of them in Genesis, they would never have fit on the ark, and there’s no mention in that story of any animals left behind (the song about the unicorn notwithstanding).  Had they been, we would have found much, much fresher bones, not buried nearly so deep.

At some point people like Ken Ham came to accept the reality of dinosaurs, not as deceptive deposits from Satan to worry our overly-curious intellects, but as species in their own right.  Intentionally or not, they had to accept science in order to make the effort to write them into their stunted history of the universe, which has opened them to eventual extinction as examples of mainstream thought, much less champions of any kind of reality.

In a way, the debate just passed was totally unfair.  Ken Ham kept pointing to his narrative as its own evidence, offering nothing beyond it to answer the evidence-laden arguments of his opponent.  He wasn’t even in the same debate, really.  He was there to insist that all these things Bill Nye represents should be ignored in favor of a story.  He insists that the story is sufficient and this other thing, this science thing, is nothing but an evil distraction from what he thinks is important.  The sad part is he probably doesn’t even know why that story is important.

It’s important because all wonder-based growth begins as a story.  We’re fascinated, entranced, and there’s magic in the narrative.  So much magic that we want to know more.  And so we go looking and if we look honestly we find so much else that transcends the modest confines of that first story.  We find universes of wonder, which we might never have looked for without first having been delighted by a story.  Ken Ham found a story that amazed him.

But then he stopped.  He stopped looking, because, it seems, he never wanted to leave that first moment of childlike wonder, wanting it to be everything.  It’s sad because while we can revisit it and we can experience the same sensation again and again and again, with new discoveries, if we try to freeze that moment and keep it, unchanging, it either fades…or rots…all on its own.  What some folks do then is build a museum in their hearts to preserve a memory that is no longer there, leaving us with the surrounding edifice and an echo.  Without new sounds, new sights, new growth, the museum calcifies and eventually becomes a fossil, never buried, bleached and empty.

At some point, Ken Ham built that museum out in the open for everyone to visit.

Apparently, fewer and fewer go.  It possesses novelty, but no genuine wonder.  And without wonder, what is there?

 

National Day of Idiocy

We should have a National Day of Idiocy to celebrate our rich heritage of public figures who make asinine statements.

I find it both fascinating and revolting how a certain faction reaches for the Holocaust at every opportunity in order to retain their illusion that just about everything that makes them even mildly uncomfortable is part and parcel of the horrible paradigm that led to a slaughter which some of their supporters think never even happened.

The mayor of Charlotte, N.C. declared May 2nd a Day of Reason.  It also happens to be the national Day of Prayer.  While some may see this as pure hype and opportunism, there’s common factor between the two things—both have to do with finding guidance.  I doubt the majority of people see much conflict between prayer and reason—in fact, most would likely conjoin them, if not as philosophical counterparts at least as practical allies—but there are always those who will insist on seeing Evil in everything that is not christian.

So, the Enlightenment led to the Holocaust (because of moral relativism). My my. I suppose that’s why Hitler kept burning books, because he was such an Enlightenment fan boy.

This also overlooks things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Spanish expulsion of Jews, the Thirty Years War, the murder of Giordano Bruno, the Albigensian Crusade…

Of course, all those things were, I suppose, in response to moral relativism?

No, this is typical ahistorical nonsense from people who can’t seem to pull their heads out of the heavenly clouds. It would be laughable if not for its scope. Lamar Smith of Texas is proposing a bill to eliminate peer review in government-funded science programs. It’s a bit more complex than that, but in essence Smith wants technology programs, not basic research, and clearly does not understand how science is conducted or even why it’s important. And he’s on the Science. Space, and Technology Committee. No, wait, he’s the chair of the committee.

Laugh, cry, or go on vacation. The only question is how these people got where they are and have the ability to disrupt so much by sheer assertive nonsense.

What might follow now, as in past posts, would be a lengthy discourse on the nature of reason and why these people are wrong, but I’m tired and really, if you already find what they’re saying and doing crack-brained then you don’t need the lesson. I applaud the mayor of Charlotte for having the chutzpah to declare a Day or Reason in a state that thinks prayer will prevent Obama from being re-elected. (I’ll give you all a minute to digest that.) I’d like to see a few more politicians stand up to the idiocy.

Maybe we should establish a national Day of Lunacy on which we all find someone steeped in misinformation—you know, people who think FOX news is actually news?—and attempt an intervention. Get them to a lecture on the scientific method. Make them watch an episode of NOVA. Take them to lunch with Neil de Grasse Tyson.

What I would very much like to see is a genuine response among enough people matter to defend reason and science and instead of it just being a cool trendy thing that gives us new toys every few years actually elevates the level of national discourse.

Yeah, I still dream occasionally.

Meaning, Cults, Freedom

Recently, I finished reading Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollwood, & the Prison of Belief, about Scientology.  It’s a lucid history and examination of the movement.  I wrote a review of the book over at the Proximal Eye, here.  In that review, I touched on a few of the concerns I harbor in regards to religious movements, Scientology in particular, but all of them in general.

The central question in Wright’s book—and indeed in others, for instance Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner Of Heaven about Mormonism—is the question of volitional surrender.  Why do people hand over the keys to their being to institutions and ideologies that are often based on dubious claims, led by people with clearly autocratic tendencies, to live lives of functional servitude, if not physically certainly intellectually?

There are separate questions here, concerning different stages.  For those born into a group, being raised within its codes and customs, the Outside is by definition alien and the individual is required to do exactly the reverse of the adult who comes into that group from the Outside.  The same question can apply to the apostate who has grown up knowing nothing else—why would you throw over all that you know to embrace this Other Thing?  (The Amish offer an excellent example of the problem, with their practice of rumspringa, a kind of wanderjahr for the youth to go see the outside world and decide for themselves whether to stay or leave the community.  It would seem to be a fair practice, offering freedom of choice, but how fair can it be?  One can read a book about another culture, “know” it intellectually, but that’s a far cry from being able to operate within it, or understand it on any visceral level.  Instead, it’s a kind of wilderness test, which more than likely causes sufficient anxiety that a return to what one has known one’s entire life is virtually guaranteed except for the most adventurous—which may serve the community by culling out those so independent-minded who may cause problems later by nonconformity.)

It would be easy to dismiss certain problems with cultism by seeing past eras as offering essentially little to counter the claims of a charismatic proselyte offering a path to transcendence, but the fact is most of these movements seem immune to any kind of counterargument for those who seem determined to join something that offers them such a path.  For the first generation of Mormons, it didn’t matter that Joseph Smith was obviously coming up with his revelations out of his own head.  When his wife called his bluff on polygamy, all she managed to do was sheer off a splinter group and increase the resolve of the core followers.  What was happening was a sophisticated con, but it didn’t matter, not to those surrounding Smith and later Brigham Young.  It was at that point no longer Smith’s revelation but theirs.  He couldn’t have stopped if he had wished to.  The intricate and alchemical brew of group coherence had happened and it had become Another Thing, an Experience that was true as an experience, regardless of the facts or the motives behind its inception.  The followers had created it and made it its own entity.

Which would suggest that the thing being believed in is less important than the clear need on the part of the acolyte to believe.

Subsequently, this creates a hermetic seal around the object of belief, because belief is not real unless it is absolute.  Criticism of the tenets of faith are not so much attacks on details as on the act of believing.  The whole being of the believer becomes so intertwined with the thing believed as to be one and the same, inseparable.  Personal.  And yet, curiously dispassionate.  It’s not so much a choice as an inevitability, a recognition, an “of course” moment, a “how could I have been so blind?” revelation…

…which automatically renders any question of “how can I be so blind?” inadmissible, unhearable, unsupportable.

It has nothing to do with intelligence.  It’s all about meaning.

The central question of all philosophy is simple: Why am I here?  Even philosophies that seem to render this as an unanswerable—and therefore purely academic question—start from there.  It’s a good question.  What is my purpose in this life?  Religion supplants the inward-directedness of this by offering more cosmic possibilities, often of an unknowable nature, which require belief.  Faith.  No matter what, there is a purpose, a point, and even if I can’t see it, it is at least there.  Meanwhile, here are some guideposts, some rules, some practices that will keep me on a path more or less in sympathy with this higher purpose.  By serving this belief in a telec universe, our own sense of purpose can be, if not answered, at least validated, even if the cause is abstruse or abstract.

Trusting that purpose will be fulfilled simply through faith is not sufficient for the organizations commanding the obeisance of their membership.  If there is a purpose, then actions must be taken to fulfill it, and in lieu of any other clear program, conversion becomes their raison d’être.  They must be seen to be purposeful.  What higher purpose, then, than to change the world.  The clearest way to do that is to convert the world to their cause.  (This is functionally impossible, because there has always been and will always be competing doctrines, but it does raise an interesting question of what would they do if they achieved this end?  After the point at which everyone believed in the same thing, what next?)  And so the continual proselytization such institutions sponsor. (This has the added benefit of redirecting any kind of skepticism from the proselytes potential to ask questions of their own faith into a concern for the potential converts lack of faith.)

There are many definitions of cults, some of which contradict, but at base it is a tricky thing because a “cult” bears sufficient semblance to well-established religions that the only apparent difference is size.  If a charismatic preacher with a hundred followers claims to speak directly to god, he’s a nut.  But if the pope makes the same claim, it is accepted as a matter of faith and accorded a kind of respect the preacher cannot command.  Size.  A hundred people can be deluded, but a billion?  At that level, we tacitly acknowledge that Something Else Is Going On.

My own test has to do with permeability.  Is there egress equal to ingress?  How easily can people leave?  What restrictions are placed on individual interaction with the so-called Outside World, if any?  It’s one thing to claim that people are free to leave at any time, but if the organizational structure requires a cutting off of contact, a limitation of information from outside the group, whether physically imposed or simply a matter of conformity to the group, part of its identity, then it becomes a question meriting a closer look.  Cult? Or religion?  Or, more accurately, cult or church?  The Amish offer an apparent open door, but it’s not really.  Young Amish go out on their rumspringa utterly unprepared because all their lives up to that point have been lived in a bubble that limits information, limits experience, limits contact, and then makes it an either-or test.  (That the limits are self-imposed does not matter since they are self-imposed in  order to avoid group censure.) They are unequipped to make the kinds of judgments and choices so many of us take as a simple right to associate with whom and in what way we choose.  (The big difference regarding the Amish is they do not proselytize.  They don’t go out actively recruiting.  This, to my mind, removes them from cult status and makes them simply what might be called a Pocket Culture.)

A cult guards itself from the Outside by demanding its members shut out anything not wholly contained within the cult.  It actively discourages interface with the world at large.  Sometimes it will go so far as physically impede such contact.

But the members will accept this.  The question brought up by Wright’s book is, why?

If one genuinely believes that their salvation is at stake, that they risk losing an eternal soul should they question—if, in other words, fear is the motive for strict adherence to a set of doctrines and behavioral restrictions—then it is possible one is being abused.  We have ample evidence and example of abused children remaining intransigently loyal to their abusers.  The possibility of inhabiting another condition, whether “better” or not, is unthinkable, because they risk their identity.

Within the precincts of certain ideologies, part of the experience is literally seeing the world in a different way.  The “truth” of the doctrine is exampled in this seeing.  Things “make sense” in ways they never did before.  (It doesn’t matter here that this new way of seeing can happen with any conceptual breakthrough and that if we’re lucky it happens all the time, throughout life, as a natural part of learning.)  That apparent “clarity” can become so important that anything which endangers it must be avoided, actively shut out.  Questions about the central doctrines simply cannot be entertained when the stakes are so high.

In this way, the apparent glassy-eyed acceptance of conceptual weirdness within certain cults makes sense as the only possible path for someone who has achieved a fragile balance because of a framework of belief and is afraid of losing it by questioning the very beam on which they now stand.  The tragedy is that this balance should be theirs no matter which beam they stand on, but the institution has convinced them that it is not theirs should they question or leave.  People feel they have found a home, but a home is a place from which you can come and go as you please, bringing back what you find, enlarging it and decorating it with new things.  The door is never shut in either direction.  Wright’s subtitle posits “the prison of belief” and that pertains when the door is shut and you either don’t leave or if you do you can never come back, which turns the world to which you’ve escaped into just another prison.

Ironically, the one in the deepest cell may be the figure at the center of the movement.  The founder.  Jim Jones, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, all the others.  None of them could stop being who their followers thought they were.  Ultimately, it killed them all.  They had even less freedom to leave.  Their task was to design the prison and always be in it.  One wonders if they in any way fulfilled their own definition of purpose.